Home > In the Spotlight, Tales of the Weird > Sleep, Dopesmoker and the Cocoanut Grove

Sleep, Dopesmoker and the Cocoanut Grove

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by Mat Weir

If there is one band who has influenced Doom Metal the most in the 21st century, it would be Sleep. Birthed from the ashes of the San Jose sludge band, Asbestos Death, Sleep began as a four-piece, quickly moving to a power trio of Matt Pike on guitar, Al Cisneros on bass/vocals & Chris Hakius on drums. By building upon & dragging out early stoner rock riffs–ala Black Sabbath, Pentagram, the Melvins and more–Sleep revolutionized the doom metal scene in the Bay and beyond, spawning a huge cult following. Their mission was to turn metal into art and they succeeded with four, must-have records (three full-lengths & one EP) before disbanding in 1998 after only eight years together. Of their three releases the final, Dopesmoker, is THE unquestionably quintessential album for metal heads, music lovers & stoners alike. It was also the album that destroyed the band and it was almost never released.

After the release of their epic second album, Holy Mountain, Sleep caught the eye of London Records, who signed them for a third release. The band ended up blowing their advance all on new equipment & weed, working on what would be their opus. When the band finally turned the album in after three years of work, the label was appalled at what they heard: a single, droning song, lasting over an hour long, about a stoner shaman. London Records declared it un-listenable, and Sleep went back into the studio, editing the song down to 52 minutes, renaming it “Jerusalem,” but essentially keeping it the same. Again, London rejected the song, driving the band to quit. A year later, “Jerusalem” would be released first as a bootleg on TeePee Records, then as an official release on The Music Cartel label. In 2003, TeePee released the official, original version of Dopesmoker with several reissues on Southern Lord Records. In 2009, Cisneros & Pike reunited Sleep, with festival dates & several tours.

Last month, they played the Cocoanut Grove and I don’t think there was a single metalhead in the area NOT there. By the time Sleep played, the room had more weed smoke than oxygen, perfect for a night of heavy, stoner jams. I had taken a tab of weaker LSD earlier, perfectly orchestrating my night so I was still in the bubble of reality, but staring out with rainbow distortion. The combination of external chemicals mixed with my own endorphins and Sleep’s heavy, rhythmic metal led me down the chosen road for their entire two hour set. As drunken metalheads moshed & rode on each others shoulders in a ball of controlled chaos, I stood there smoking a joint, feeling each note of the path with every atom of my being. Matt Pike would later tell me the key to Sleep’s music, much like the jazz he is influenced by, is the notes not being played. The pauses, the waits, the seconds spent anticipating what will come next and the LSD only enhanced that experience to spiritual levels.

However, with or without drugs, the complex scoring of Dopesmoker is clearly evident on the record. From the opening notes, to the drawn-out opening lyrics of “Dropped out of life with bong in hand,” to the melodic interludes between verses, the album/song takes its time going where it wants; much like the alien, nomadic caravan that graces the cover. Sleep command you to pay attention, listen, and appreciate their music. After all, it’s art and not just an aggressive assault on everything pure and sacred, like other metal (which I also love).

It’s such a perfect recording, not only do I have two copies, but I’m thinking of buying a third (the latest on black vinyl, limited to 3000 copies), just so I don’t fuck up the ones on colored vinyl. Seriously. It belongs on more top 50–hell, even top 10–Best Album lists, as it is one of the timeless recordings that never sounds dated. But don’t take my word for it. Hit play, spark a joint of fine Norcal Indica and sleep in the space between matter, letting go of what doesn’t.

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